Rabies vaccination of dogs is legally required in many areas. In most of those, it must be given by a veterinarian, unlike some other vaccines that can be purchased from a veterinarian or supplier and administered by owners.

Why does a veterinarian have to administer rabies vaccines? There are a few reasons.

  • One is that it helps ensure that the vaccine is handled properly. In a vet clinic, where vaccine handling and storage is routine, there’s less chance of the vaccine being handled inappropriately (e.g. left out of the fridge for a prolonged time). Poor handling, especially failing to maintain “cold chain” (keeping the vaccine cool at all times until it’s administered) is a particular concern in other situations.
  • Having a vet administer the vaccine also decreases the risk of problems caused by inappropriate administration (e.g. not getting the full dose into the animal).
  • There can also be a greater assurance that if a vet signs a rabies certificate, that the animal was actually vaccinated, as opposed to if a person just says they vaccinated their own dog. Veterinary records are also presumably better at recording when the vaccine was given, what vaccine was given and the lot number, all things that can be relevant.

A recent case in Texas highlights this issue. A dog in El Paso County was diagnosed with rabies, and while the news article isn’t particularly detailed, it’s stated that the owner gave the dog a rabies vaccine. The health department was unable to confirm where the vaccine came from or who gave it (and I assume we have to wonder whether it was actually vaccinated… maybe they just said it was, or maybe they vaccinated the dog against something else and only thought they’d vaccinated it for rabies).

Rabies vaccine is a highly effective vaccine, so I doubt the dog was vaccinated properly (and currently) vaccinated given that it developed rabies. If it was, I wonder if it was a very poorly handled vaccine or a cheap vaccine purchased from a questionable source, versus a mainstream veterinary vaccine. Vaccine failure from a properly administered, adequate quality vaccine is exceptionally unlikely.

While rabies in dogs and cats is quite rare in Canada and the US (and most countries that don’t have endemic canine rabies variant circulating in the feral dog population), it’s an almost invariably fatal disease, so we take it very seriously. Vaccination of pets is important to protect pets and the public, and the cost of a vet administering the vaccine is a lot less than the cost, hassles and risk from inadequate vaccination resulting in exposed animals getting infected.